“It’s a rare and wonderful opportunity to find out what is true.” If that line were spoken in most plays, you’d imagine happy and transformative event.
But in Struck, now at Cleveland Public Theatre, it is intoned in reference to a stroke suffered by Tannis Kowalchuk, who is one of the two performers on stage, along with Brett Keyser. A third person, Kowalchuk’s real neurologist Allison Waters, appears in video form.
Having recovered remarkably rapidly from the brain event that brought her down in 2011, Kowalchuk has collaborated on this devised work with the NACL Theatre in the Catskills, NY, where she is the co-founding artistic director. And it is being given its world premiere at CPT, where both Kowalchuk and Keyser have appeared before in highly successful productions.
Struck explores this “cerebrovascular accident” from the inside out, utilizing captivating and often startling digital video effects projected on an ever-changing scrim-screens that are pulled across or dropped into the playing area.
Since there is nothing linear about a stroke, which in Kowalchuk’s case meant losing the ability to identify common objects along with other functions, it calls for a non-linear presentation.
And Struck is all that as Kowalchuk, playing the 45-year-old Katherine, interacts with Brett Keyser who plays various roles including Katherine's husband and an angel who is either guiding her towards death or back into the light. Or maybe both.
That’s just a sample of the brilliant contradictions and tantalizing questions presented in this lushly layered production. Working within a small space defined by a rectangular metal structure, flanked by audience seated on the long sides, the actors weave a story from bits of fact and waves of imagination, hallucination, and whatever else you call the brain’s activity when it’s whirling out of control.
Much of the activity takes place in Iceland, where Katherine’s grandparents lived and where she spent time. The cold, blue light of Iceland serves as a telling metaphor for where Katherine’s brain has landed, in a foreign yet beautiful place where words are unintelligible but love and concern seem within an arm’s reach.
There is also a parallel story told surrounding the myth of Persephone, the goddess of Spring growth who escapes from the underworkd. The story of Katherine is a story of escape, but also a tale of the wonders that are experienced when one is taken helplessly into an altered state.
Director Ker Wells and more than a dozen artists and entities have combined their talents to fashion this visceral as well as intellectual experience. And even when you’re not sure what’s going on, there are enough touchstones to keep you grounded and moving forward with the players.
This culminates in a good place, joyously rendered by Kowalchuk when she dons Icelandic celebratory garb, emerging and discovering renewal and a spiritual awakening. However, there isn’t a mawkish or maudlin moment in the mix.
If theater can be truly immersive—employing light, sound and movement in continually surprising ways—then Struck is the perfect example. And just like the fuzzy basal ganglia that floats above the set, activating and pulsing in different colors, your synapses are going to light up in new and different ways when experiencing this amazing event.
Through April 6 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727